Re: Irony and Human Nature (re: Austin & Sanderson)

Wed, 23 Apr 1997 13:30:25 -0500 (EST)
s_sanderson (

Well, I see there is a lot of interest in the relationship between individuals
and social systems. A few more points.

First, Nikolai Rozov is quite right when he suggests that Austin's notion of
rationality is quite different from mine. Austin's meaning is extremely
restrictive; as he conceptualizes rationality, of course many of the
conclusions he draws concerning its frequency in human affairs are correct.
What I mean by calling individuals rational is that they follow their own
interests, and that they have been built by biological evolution to do so.
Austin wonders whether other animals behave rationally. Of course they do in
the sense that they, too, have been built by biological evolution to follow
their own selfish interests.

It really amazes me the extent to which the assumption of the naturalness of
human self-interest is rejected by many sociologists. I would think that
anyone who has ever reared an infant would have no serious doubt of how
absolutely natural human self-interest is. As Nikolai points out, the
socialization process is substantially devoted to put all kinds of contraints
on overwhelmingly egoistic behavior.

People who think that self-interest is a product of modern capitalism and all
that sort of thing should have a look at recent research on hunter-gatherer
societies carried out by evolutionary ecologists. One of the most striking
features of hunter-gatherer behavior is their enormous emphasis on generosity,
cooperation, and sharing. These are fundamental to their value system. Some
will conclude that these values prove that socialization for altruism is the
whole basis for this behavior. But it isn't so. The conclusion of most
evolutionary ecologists is that intensive sharing is a product of individual
calculation of long-run self-interest. Intensive sharing is a variance
reduction mechanism. Because resources vary so much from time to time and
place to place, hunters experience striking differences in hunting success. If
hunters hoard rather than share, they will go long periods of time without
eating meat. But if they share with others, then others will share with them,
thus giving them access to meat most of the time. Is such behavior rational?
Yes, of course, in the sense that individuals are using those behavioral
strategies that they perceive to be in their long run self interest.

Now, are social systems prior to individuals, as probably nearly everyone on
WSN would claim? Well, in a sense of course they are. All of us were born
into an ongoing social system and socializated within it. Sociology 101.
But where Sociology 101 goes wrong is in failing to ask about the origins of
the social systems that precede individuals. To make my point, let's try a
thought experiment. I've tried this on some of my students. Let's imagine
that I have invented a machine that can "deculturize" individuals at whom it is
pointed. Okay, so I use my machine to deculturize my intro. class and then put
them on a plane and drop them on a deserted island in the Pacific. There they
are with only their biological urges for survival: no language, nor norms, no
values, nothing cultural. Can we predict what will happen? Yes, to some
extent. Their first concern is survival, and to do that they have to
develop technology and some sort of economic system. In the process they
develop rudimentary language in order to communicate efficiently. They also
have to establish order, so they have to create some sort of political system,
and so on and so forth. In other words, they build a society and a culture.
Now, when new individuals are born they will be confronting a preexisting
social system that will have an impact on them. But that system had to exist
in order to have that impact, and in order to exist it had to be created by
individuals in the first place. And the kind of system that gets built will
have to be consistent with what humans are like as organisms. But the selfish
organism is still there, acting "rationally" within the contingencies
established by the social order, and in the process maintaining or changing
that order as conditions warrant.

>From this point on there is a recursive relationship between the social system
and the individual members of it. Things get much more complicated after this
point, but we still have to pay close attention to those selfish human
organisms and what it is possible for them to do. It is they who build and
transform societies.

The assumption of natural self-interest in itself (or by itself) doesn't really
explain anything. It has to be linked to the total set of natural and social
environmental conditions that people confront. Hence, Chris Chase-Dunn and Tom
Hall and I all agree that population pressure was the main cause of the
transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture beginning about 10,000
COMES FROM!! All of us are explaining social phenomena by looking at a range
of sociocultural variables. But to me these variables only work in terms of
the contingencies they establish for individually rational action. Social
systems are real enough, but they cannot exist apart from the actions of the
individuals that sustain them.

For me the most obvious basis for the assumption of the naturalness of
individual self-interest is Darwinian evolutionary theory. If this theory is
correct, and it is certainly correct or extremely close to being correct, then
there can be no such thing as a organism that is anything but naturally
selfish, because such an organism couldn't evolve. It would be driven to
extinction before it had a chance to get anywhere. And all of the highly
cooperative ways in which humans and many other organisms behave are, if
nothing else, driven by enlightened self-interest.

I am sure that none of the above will impress Andrew Austin. He will
probably let loose with another tirade against me, as he has done in the past
against me and others who have dared to take a position he dislikes. What
fools all of us obviously are. However, I direct these remarks to those other
WSNers who are more open-minded and still feel that there are a few things they
can learn from one another.

Stephen Sanderson